Chris Percy, Co-Director- CareerChat Ltd.

As COVID-19 disruptions deepen, careers and employability advisers are under extraordinary pressure to support unprecedented numbers of workers and those facing redundancy. They are being asked to do serve more people with less time. They are being asked to use labour market information in an environment where historical trends lose their credibility. Many are ready to rise to the challenge and hungry for the tools to help them succeed.

Job seekers and job switchers want more personalised or tailored support

At the same time, job seekers and job switchers want more personalised or tailored support. They want to be able to ask questions any time, 24/7; they want to try out silly questions that won’t be held against them; and they want to find information themselves. But they also want help with where to look, with contextualising what they learn, and with thinking about what it means for them. And they want help building an action plan to take control of their careers.

A group of FE colleges, careers support providers and local government leads have come together as part of a Nesta-funded CareerTech Challenge National Prize Competition to try and change our minds about chatbots.

Dr Deirdre Hughes OBE and an expert team of AI and labour market intelligence experts are building an innovative chatbot ‘CiCi – the powerhouse that supports your career’ to help advisers’ work with adult job seekers and job switchers. Associate Partners from Derby College, Gloucestershire and Stroud College, Bristol City College, Newcastle College, Weston College, Adviza, Education Development Trust, the Futures Group, local/combined authority and LEP leads in Bristol, Newcastle and Derby are each helping to inform the design and content.

Ever greater focus on automated systems

One challenge is that many of us associate chatbots with frustrating automated helplines with banks, utilities, or broadband providers. They seem designed to prevent you from talking to a person for as long as possible. A second challenge is that chatbots and the AI that powers them are associated more with disrupting careers than enabling them. Call centre workers and public-facing services are being stripped back, with ever greater focus on automated systems.

The team behind a new chatbot prototype, CiCi, have an entirely different approach in mind. We believe humans and bots can work well together. CiCi - the powerhouse that supports your career™ - (stands for CareerChat for ‘inspiration’ and ‘ideas’) is a tool for advisers to direct clients to, when they think it can help them, inviting the clients to return once they have explored the relevant topic on CiCi. This innovative bot provides a safe curated environment, providing localised labour market information, details on the skills required for different jobs, searchable training courses and job adverts, as well as short videos and hundreds of hints and tips around job applications, CV support and network building. Many of these questions are challenging to answer online, requiring sophistication to access data sources or search skills to navigate a swamp of low-quality content to find trustworthy information.

The interaction goes both ways. CiCi is designed using AI and natural language understanding to prompt the user to contact local expert advisers at key points. And users can, any time of the day or night, search for help to get in touch with local experts.

A chatbot can never do careers guidance on its own

A chatbot can never do careers guidance on its own. Our lives and our careers are too complicated – often it’s confidence we need the most, not just context. But a chatbot with trained and skilled advisers working in tandem: that’s a powerful recipe.

In 2020, with Nesta and Department for Education funding, CiCi went from a plan on a page to a working prototype, tested by over 136 job seekers and job switchers and feedback from Super User Groups. Even in its fledgeling state, over two thirds would recommend CiCi to a friend looking for help with their career – and at least one of the volunteer testers reported getting a job interview with CiCi’s help! A CiCi demo prototype is available to try out here.

In 2021, the team are looking for operational partners to pilot CiCi, tailored to their local needs. 2021 is the year to go from prototype to product: we hope you’ll be hearing much more from us soon.

Chris Percy, Co-Director- CareerChat Ltd.

Chris Percy is a leading economist, strategy consultant, and independent careers researcher with expertise in quantitative methods. He is also a Senior Associate at DMH Associates, Exeter.

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